How I happened to come to know the work of photographer Walker Evans is thus: My grandfather, born in the 1920s, one of seven children, grew up as an Irish-Catholic sharecropper’s son in a place that wasn’t even a place in Mississippi. They didn’t have indoor plumbing, they didn’t have an outhouse, to begin with, they had a latrine. If they didn’t have a mule to pull the plow, the boys took turns wearing the harness and they plowed the fields that way. When I saw this book, “Cotton Tenants” by James Agee with Photographs by Walker Evans, it was a must-read for me, it made me feel closer to my grandfather and helped shed light on a way of life I’d heard firsthand stories about but hadn’t quite fully understood because I was so young when I heard them. I remember going to visit my great-grandparents in Mississippi, all those years ago, they still lived in tin-roof houses with threadbare floors, the linoleum worn through, and a pull chain toilet in the bathroom. My great-grandmother mopped her kitchen floor every day. They had no extra anything and nothing went to waste. The photographs of Walker Evans struck a personal chord with me.
Walker Evans is best known for his work as a “Farm Security Administration” photographer, taking pictures during The Great Depression. Somewhere or another I heard an interview of Evans, when asked about the work of documenting The Great Depression, and of being hired by Fortune Magazine along with James Agee to go get this story about how these poor families were living, what he said was to the effect, paraphrasing, that it was The Great Depression for everybody, and even though he didn’t care for being told what to photograph, he couldn’t afford to turn down the job.
Cover Photo of “Cotton Tenants”: Floyd Burroughs and Tingle (Tengle) children, Hale County Alabama, 1936
Lucille Burroughs, picking cotton, Hale County, Alabama, 1936
Walker Evans’ work for the FSA is now in the public domain. Walker Evans had previously collaborated with Agee for the book, “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.” His work has otherwise been collected and documented in numerous volumes. Evans also took photos of urban landscapes, including a series of photographs taken in 1938 when he snuck a camera, hidden under his coat onto the subway in New York. These photos became his book “Many Are Called.”
I am continuing to learn about the work of Walker Evans. To me, his images are stark, evocative of a sophisticated simplicity, without manufactured sentimentality, and feel very much like he is showing us the world exactly as it presented itself to him.
Enjoy. ~ TS